Nigeria’s Elections: Reversing the Degeneration?
Nigeria’s Elections: Reversing the Degeneration?
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
The Promise and Potential Pitfalls of Nigeria’s 2023 Elections (Online event, 23 February 2023)
The Promise and Potential Pitfalls of Nigeria’s 2023 Elections (Online event, 23 February 2023)
Briefing / Africa 5 minutes

Nigeria’s Elections: Reversing the Degeneration?

Despite some encouraging preparations, huge challenges remain in the short weeks before the April general elections at which Nigeria’s international reputation and faith in its own democracy are at stake.

I. Overview

The April 2011 general elections – if credible and peaceful – would reverse the degeneration of the franchise since Nigeria returned to civilian rule in 1999, yield more representative and legitimate institutions and restore faith in a democratic trajectory. Anything similar to the 2007 sham, however, could deepen the vulnerability of West Africa’s largest country to conflict, further alienate citizens from the political elite and reinforce violent groups’ narratives of bad governance and exclusion. Flawed polls, especially if politicians stoke ethnic or religious divides, may ignite already straining fault lines, as losers protest results. Despite encouraging electoral preparations, serious obstacles remain. Many politicians still seem determined to use violence, bribery or rigging to win the spoils of office. In the remaining weeks, national institutions, led by the Independent National Election Commission (INEC), should redouble efforts to secure the poll’s integrity, tackle impunity for electoral crimes, increase transparency and bolster safeguards, including by publicising results polling station by polling station and rejecting bogus returns.

With Laurent Gbagbo’s attempt to defy democracy in Côte d’Ivoire casting a shadow throughout the continent, the elections will resonate, for good or ill, well beyond national borders. Nigeria’s prestige and capacity to contribute to international peace and stability are at stake. The reputation of President Goodluck Jonathan, the generally favoured incumbent, is at stake too. He took a tough stance for respecting election results in Côte d’Ivoire, and his promise to respect rules for these polls contrasts starkly with former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s “do or die” language in 2007. Jonathan’s victory in an orderly (at least in Abuja) People’s Democratic Party (PDP) presidential primary and subsequent wooing of northern powerbrokers seem thus far to have averted dangerous north-south splits within the ruling party. He appointed a respected academic and civil society activist, Professor Attahiru Jega, to chair the INEC and seems inclined to respect its autonomy, including by providing timely funding for elections. Jega’s leadership offers some protection against the wholesale manipulation of results that blighted previous polls.

But huge challenges remain. Jega carries the expectations of the nation, but – as he emphasises – is no magician. He assumed office only in June 2010 and has juggled much needed reforms against the imperative of actually holding elections in 2011. He inherited an organisation complicit in the 2007 fraud, exposed to manipulation outside the capital and over which the new Electoral Act denies him full control. To his – and the nation’s – credit, a gamble to conduct a risky voter registration exercise seems to have paid off, but its shaky start was a reminder of challenges, even in simply delivering materials around the vast country in a timely manner.

Underlying causes of electoral flaws, however, run deeper than election administration. Stakes are high: the state is the principle means of generating wealth; vast oil revenues are accessed through public office. Extreme poverty makes voters vulnerable to bribes and intimidation. The election takes place against an upsurge in violence, including attacks in Borno, communal violence in Jos and explosions in Abuja and elsewhere. Politicians and their sponsors habitually exploit violent groups and social divisions to win elections, so many Nigerians perceive that upsurge as linked to April’s polls. A number of incumbent governors face bruising contests, and the threat of bloodshed hangs over many states. Security is crucial to electoral integrity, but security forces have traditionally done little to prevent rigging or violence and have often been bought by politicians and complicit. Lower-level courts are often corrupt, impunity is insidious and the rule of law at best weak. No one has been convicted of an electoral offence since independence.

Elections, therefore, traditionally offer Nigerian politicians a choice: respect the rules and risk losing to an opponent who does not; or avoid the political wilderness by rigging or violence, knowing that to do so is easy, and you are unlikely to be punished. Shifting these incentives is essential to holding better elections. Tackling underlying issues – unchecked executives, frail institutions, rampant impunity and inequitable distribution of power and resources – requires reforms of a scope not feasible by April. But by bolstering safeguards, rigorous planning, ensuring better security, acting against bogus results and beginning to convict electoral offenders, INEC and other institutions can at least make cheating less attractive.

Further recommendations are given throughout this briefing, but the following are priorities:

  • To dent the pervasive impunity that drives rigging and violence, INEC must prosecute electoral offenders, including its own staff, security officials and politicians. The police must assist in gathering evidence. Task forces at federal and state level bringing together INEC, public prosecutors and police should be established to facilitate prosecutions. These measures should be widely publicised, with the attorney general and inspector general of police echoing Chairman Jega’s tough language against electoral offences.
  • INEC should bolster electoral safeguards to make cheating more difficult. It must plan a transparent, efficient system for collating returns, post results in every polling unit and publish a full breakdown by polling unit at every level of tabulation – ward, local government area, state and federal – and provide party agents, observers and accredited media access to all collation centres. Learning from the chaotic start to voter registration, it must tighten plans for timely procurement, delivery, retrieval and management of materials, with resident election commissioners in each state submitting plans to it well ahead of elections. Temporary staff must be well trained on new polling and counting procedures and permit only those whose names appear on rolls to vote in each polling unit.
  • INEC should suspend announcing results where suspicious returns may have affected the outcome, then investigate and, where necessary, repeat the election. Judges on the Court of Appeal and the specially-established electoral tribunals should have the resources and training necessary to adjudicate petitions within the new Electoral Act’s timelines and without interference. But wherever possible, INEC should itself act to avert protracted legal disputes against powerful incumbents.
  • State-level security consultative committees should submit detailed plans for federal-level review well before April. The committees should establish links with civil society groups monitoring violence and community leaders able to reduce it. Security forces should deploy based on risk analysis. Training for, and monitoring of, security officials, especially police, should be increased. The inspector general of police should say publicly that security personnel complicit in rigging will be prosecuted – then ensure they are.
  • The leadership of all political parties should, publicly and together, commit to respect rules, campaign peacefully, avoid inflammatory identity-based rhetoric and use only peaceful, legal means to contest results. Candidates at all levels, starting with presidential candidates in Abuja and gubernatorial candidates in each state capital, should sign in public ceremonies the code of conduct being prepared by INEC.
  • International actors should make clear and in public to elites the implications of another sham election. Diplomats can remind the president that his and Nigeria’s prestige are dependent on him meeting his promises to respect rules, allow credible polls and not exploit state machinery. Chaotic and rigged elections would tarnish the government, undermine confidence in its stability and stall investment.

The bar for these elections seems set at “better than 2007”. That may be realistic, given Jega’s late arrival, the INEC’s internal constraints, the stakes of office, entrenched patterns of rigging and violence and fragile rule of law. But such a modest standard – well below Nigeria’s own regional and international commitments for democratic elections – should not disguise that the choices of elites, not an innate Nigerian resistance to democracy, drive shoddy polls. If the country’s politicians want to meet their citizens’ increasingly desperate aspirations for a free and fair vote, nothing stops them from doing so.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.